"Feral cannabis," more commonly known as ditchweed, has been a part of the rural landscape from Indiana to the Dakotas and down as far as Texas for the last half-century. The hardy, opportunistic weed, descendant of the legally grown hemp of the World War II era, lines roadside ditches, the edges of farm fields and creek beds, and is an innocuous and generally unremarked upon part of Midwest country life.
As countless Midwestern youths have discovered, the wild cannabis lacks sufficient THC content to have any psychoactive effects. "You'd have to smoke a joint the size of a telephone pole to get high off that stuff," is a common refrain among those who have tried it. "You can get a sore throat and a headache, but you can't get high."
The folk wisdom on ditchweed is right, said internationally recognized cannabis expert Chris Conrad. "This stuff is feral cannabis left over from World War II when the US government subsidized hemp farming to help the war effort," Conrad told DRCNet. "It doesn't have any psychoactive effects," he added, "and that's been known since at least the 1970s."
But that has not stopped the Drug Enforcement Administration from waging war on the harmless (and high-less) weed. Since its inception in 1979, the DEA's Domestic Cannabis Eradication/ Suppression Program has expanded rapidly from initial efforts in California and Hawaii to now operate in all 50 states. This year's budget is $13 million. While the DEA publicly touts the number of cultivated plants it destroys -- it claimed to have destroyed 3.5 million cultivated plants in 1999 -- the vast majority of plants spotted and sprayed in the campaign are ditchweed.
The DEA no longer releases figures for ditchweed seizures, but in his book, "Marijuana in the Third World: Appalachia, USA," University of Kentucky sociologist Richard Clayton crunched official numbers from the late 1980s and early 1990s. "It is important to examine carefully how much of the marijuana eradicated in the US is essentially worthless ditchweed," wrote Clayton. "The answer is 95%."
Clayton's research is not the only to pan the DEA's eradication efforts, nor the most damning. A 1998 report by the Vermont State Auditor placed the proportion of ditchweed in DEA's marijuana eradication program even higher, at 99.28% (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/041.html#ditchweed).
When asked by DRCNet this week about current ditchweed to cultivated marijuana ratios, Clayton said, "Nobody knows for sure now because there is no independent audit. My guess is that roughly the same proportion is ditchweed, which is useless from a drug consumption point of view."
And if this year's campaign is any indication, a figure of that order still stands. According to reports in the Munster (Indiana) Times: "It's marijuana season again, and that means law enforcement officials have begun searching trenches, roadways and farm fields in Northwest Indiana for the ditch weed."
Indiana's share of the DEA's $13 million comes to $330,000, which it is using to employ a state trooper, a local farmer, and a crew of college students to patrol the fields of Nothwest Indiana. When the evil weed is spotted, the crew springs into action, spraying the plants with herbicide, then watching them wilt.
"It's very difficult to kill," trooper Don Hartman told the local paper. "Once it goes to seed, it's spread by animals, birds or the wind. You have to actually destroy the seed and sterilize it, but it's not possible. We spray the plant but we have to keep checking the same area to see if it's really gone."
While police are vigilant for ditchweed aficionados and warn area farmers to be on the lookout, they don't seem to find many. "A few years ago, the jails were packed with people who came to pick ditchweed," Hartman said. "We'd get phone calls about strange cars in the area or a hotel manager would call and say that someone from a different state was there, and we'd do a surveillance the next day. That's not true anymore. You don't see people coming from all over the country. We believe we've had some success."
Or perhaps those unfortunate suburban Chicago kids finally got the word about ditchweed.
The enthusiastic Hartman told the paper that in one year a decade ago, police destroyed 23 million ditchweed plants in the state with a value of $10 billion. Sounds impressive, until one considers that ditchweed has no value in the drug market. This would suggest a more modest value for the eradicated plants: zero. (Twenty-three million times zero still equals zero.)
Hartman added that the herbicide spray doesn't kill the plants immediately. If you smoke it after it has been sprayed, it won't kill you, he told the Times, "but you won't get the same high." The Times reported that Hartman "chuckled" at his own witty remark.
At least the program provides summer work for a crew of college students like Dawn Patrick, 20, of Wheatfield, a junior at Southern Indiana University. Part of a two-person crew -- one drives, one sprays -- Patrick is in her second year on the ditchweed death patrol. "I don't know anyone who has come to pick it, but we had heard that people would come look for it," she told the Times.
The Munster Times reporter did not question either about the futility or utility of their work. But when DRCNet asked the University of Kentucky's Clayton about the wisdom of devoting resources to eradicating ditchweed, he asked in return: "How do you transcribe the sound of laughter?" Regaining his composure, Clayton said: "In the larger scheme of things, this is a relatively small amount of money. The program's principal purpose may be as much symbolic as real, which is consistent with the principal approach of the domestic drug war."
It may only be $13 million this year, said Chris Conrad, "but's that's money that could be hungry kids, for education, or any number of other things. At least it's not $13 million being spent to put people in prison."
But for Conrad, who frequently testifies as a court-qualified expert witness in California marijuana cases, the war on ditchweed is worse than merely stupid. "This is more than a waste of money," Conrad told DRCNet. "This is akin to species-cide. The taxpayers' money is going to destroy hemp that was developed at taxpayer expense by the US government to produce the most productive hemp in the world for American fighting men. This feral cannabis is highly superior to what is being used in Europe and Canada now. What we have here is one of the last stands of superior hemp for high quality industrial products," said Conrad. "If I were growing hemp, my preferred source of seeds would be those plants being destroyed by the DEA. They're the best possible hemp seeds: low THC, high fiber and oil production, low fertilizer requirements, high yield."
As for the DEA, said Conrad, they are engaging in what is "basically an arbitrary abuse of power. They have discretion to deal with this, and their discretion is to be arbitrary, cruel and capricious."
("Arbitrary and capricious" is legal language that was used by DEA Administrative Law Judge Francis Young in 1988 to conclude that DEA was obligated under the Controlled Substances Act to reschedule marijuana as a prescription medicine. DEA Chief Administrator Robert Bonner proceeded to arbitrarily and capriciously disregard Judge Young's well researched and reasoned decision, which the Act allowed him to do.)